While ‘Sea Of Poppies’ focused on the opium trade, with Ghosh sailing the story across so many myriad, interesting characters brought together by that one single drug; ‘River Of Smoke’, the second book in the Ibis trilogy, zeros in on the merchants directly involved with the opium trade in China and how the Chinese Emperor’s strict rules to completely ban its trade affected them.
So, ‘Sea Of Poppies’ ended with the Ibis’ course upset by a storm which allows a few men-including two prisoners- to escape.
The ‘River Of Smoke‘ starts, like the first one, with Deeti in a very distant future(the exact date is not mentioned) in her shrine of images. Deeti reminisces about the images and how each one was drawn by many different people she had known aboard the Ibis. She remembers how Neel had drawn the picture of Ah-Fatt’s father with his ship,Anahita, behind. Ah-Fatt was one of the prisoner on the Ibis and his father was an immensely rich, Bombay Parsi merchant- Bahram Modi.Then the novel goes into flashback tracing Neel’s life after the Ibis. He ended up in Macao and then was able to procure a job as a munshi with Bahram Modi. So he sailed away to Canton where all the opium merchants had their quarters in.
From here on, ‘River Of Smoke‘ mainly focuses on the story of Bahram Modi-his predicament of not being able to sell his latest opium goods because of the tightening Chinese rules against its trade, his manners, his lifestyle, his position in a white dominated world, his desire to be independent economically from his rich in-laws,his love for a Chinese boat woman etc. The characters of the previous book make fleeting appearances such as Zachary Reid and Baboo Nob Kissin. Others characters’ stories like Paulette’s runs parallel to Bahram’s story. An equally more number of characters are introduced in the novel. The most vivid are the the numerous British merchants that are blinded by their contorted ideas of free trade and spend countless evenings arguing about the need for opium’s trade. The other memorable ones include-Vico who is Bahram’s purser, Fitcher Penrose-a botanist in search of the elusive Golden Camelia with Paulette on his ship, Redruth,Charles King-a British who opposes the opium trade vehemently and Robert Chinnery,a famous artist’s son whose letters to Paulette light up the narration every now and then.
Unlike, ‘Sea Of Poppies’, this novel does not meander a lot to other characters’ situations and circumstances but Ghosh weaves them together with Bahram’s problems and the Chinese crackdown on opium’s trade. However, like the last one, ‘River Of Smoke‘ is suffused with ample of details that are a testament to Ghosh’s love for research in his novels. Canton, particularly the fanqui town, which is the center for the foreign traders but is outside the city limits of Canton itself, is vividly described. Nonetheless, the fanqui town is an animated enclave with all sorts of services available for everyone. It is a self-sufficient enclave. The reader will be left mesmerized by the variety of people, food, clothes etc. They will be caught up in the frenzy pace of its lifestyle and overwhelmed by such a unique, vibrant amalmagation.
‘River of Smoke‘ ends with the Chinese authorities being able to force the Canton traders to surrender their opium goods which are then burnt by the former. However, the British would not, owing to their colonial superiority, accept such humiliation. Thus the novel ends at a juncture when it is is poised for the opium wars. Infact, after the burning incident, the narration jumps back to Neel in Deeti’s shrine talking about how Kalua and Jodu fought in those very wars. This foreshadows what will perhaps be the focus of the third book in this trilogy.
‘River Of Smoke‘ is a a beautiful novel which brings together a history of the forgotten, of those who are on the fringes, who were despite their marginalized status affected by the opium trade. The trilogy effortlessly moves from the country of its production to the centre of its trade in China illuminating along the way the hundreds of lives it changed and tied together in a familial sort of manner.